What Happens When Football Goes “Viral”?

A reflection on the growing impact of the Corona Virus

What Happens When Football Goes “Viral”?

Might we see Premier League matches played in a deserted Emirates?

As life in 2020AD progresses, the more it increasingly looks akin to something from the pages of a dystopian film or novel penned from less socially turbulent post-war times during the last century. After limping from a polarising UK Christmas election and Brexit Day in January, almost immediately the World crashes into the COVID-19 Corona Virus Pandemic, just now beginning to take a hold in Europe, with fears that – far from Boris Johnson’s pre-election claim that 2020 was “poised to became a great one in the history of our nation” - the reality is that the UK could suffer something akin to what Italy has experienced in recent weeks.

The sight of Serie A games and Champions League matches played behind closed doors - along with the short notice cancellation of Arsenal’s away trip to Manchester City after the Olympiacos owner Evangelos Marinakis announced his COVID-19 diagnosis this week, less than a fortnight after visiting the Arsenal stadium - both throw the matter into stark focus. As does the required self-isolation of “less than five” Arsenal players who came into contact with Mr Marinakis. For the record though, it’s not the first time such a public health crisis has affected London or Arsenal within living memory.

In Early December 1952, the “Great Smog of London” was believed to have hastened the deaths of around 12,000 Londoners. Arsenal’s postponed fixture that week turned out to be their final game of the season against Burnley, on the Friday evening before the Coronation Cup Final, in a 3-2 victory which gave Arsenal the title on goal average. Despite a winter which saw both the Great Smog and Britain’s worst natural disaster of the twentieth century in the shape of the Great East Coast floods at the end of January 1953, the football season still saw itself through to an exciting climax in early May, both in the League at Highbury and the two Stanleys – Matthews and Mortensen – winning a thrilling FA Cup Final at Wembley the following day.

People have wondered whether, the outbreak of the Corona virus will hasten a premature inconclusive end to the 2019/20 season. My opinion is that it will probably be played out one way or another, but in such an unforeseen outlandish fashion it’ll probably be the stuff of folk myth for years to come. The thought of the Premiership season prematurely ending, despite such a one-sided title race with Liverpool a matter of weeks away from their first title in three decades might amuse some. The more likely, equally as funny scenario (if one can draw humour in such turbulent times), would be Liverpool finally ending their title drought lifting the trophy in an empty Anfield stadium.

It’s entirely foreseeable that even after such a woeful and inadequate response from Boris Johnson’s government to this crisis in comparison to other European countries, mass gatherings such as football matches will eventually be outlawed in the current climate. Having said that, the headache of where to eventually restart from next season in terms of promotion, relegation and European qualification, coupled with the financial necessities and allocation of football prize money, means that the football industry may furiously resist the temptation to declare the 2019/20 Season as null and void. The tight schedule of the football calendar, which will need to accommodate a Winter World Cup in two years’ time, means that suspending the season with a view to resuming it at a later date will also be out of the question.

it’s the more likely scenario that the Premiership and EFL will continue with games behind closed doors, but permit all such games to be streamed or televised live with clubs recouping their losses through pay per view streaming in conjunction with Sky and BT Sport’s existing TV contracts. It’s also a scenario which makes sense on several levels – not least politically as a good “bread and circus act” to quell a restless population and boost jaded public morale, rather like what ‘Worker’s Playtime’ or Arthur Askey had been at the height of the Blitz.

A Self-isolating population in lockdown will also no doubt lead to large captive TV audiences. The absence of travelling fans in a stadium will also temporarily remove barriers and sensitivities on kick off times, meaning that even for instance a 7AM or 9AM UK start – infuriating for UK football purists, but an appealing early evening kick off time over in the Far East – could become a reality in the short term. Flexibility with the formats of Cup competitions may also be required simply to get the 2019/20 done and dusted with, such as Champions League and Europa League ties reduced to one legged affairs played at neutral empty stadiums in areas with low COVID-19 infection rates.

The same may also be the case for Euro 2020. The planned Pan-European competition UEFA originally had in store for this season may have to give way to a more streamlined affair held in just one single low COVID-19 infection rate territory with the dumping of the drawn out group phase in favour of a straight knockout competition in some fashion.

Undoubtedly, there are far greater social matters of concern at present than how the football season pans out. But for the sake of seeing the 2019/20 season over the line – and maybe even allowing for the trivialities of live to safe guard the mental well being of the World’s population during such troubled times – the weeks and months ahead could turn out to be a case of “Keep Calm and Carry on Streaming”.

Robert Exley can be followed on Twitter and is also the Creator of the Video Series Double Barrel: The Story of Arsenal’s 1970/71 Season’


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  1. markymark

    Mar 17, 2020, 18:05 #116662

    Don Howe - fully agree. Old Trump , blamed a hoax ,then the Democrats , shifted to Europe and has now gone back to blaming China. Russia blames us ?!? Did you know that the Spanish Flu was called the Spanish Flu because remaining neutral in World War 1 they had a free press that accurately reported the cases. Meanwhile UK, USA , French and the German papers covered up the flu due to it being morale sapping during the War. People therefore thought the Spanish were to blame . Nothing changes really does it!

  2. Don Howe

    Mar 17, 2020, 15:48 #116661

    The blame game is a dangerous one to play. and fairly pointless.I have just watched Jeremy Hunt asking respectful but probing questions of NHS Chiefs about amongst other things respirators for medical staff. Some A&E Doctors had fed him the questions and he was gently kicking the mandarins up the bum to get it done. We all need to be helpful. We need to help each other. If you want someone to blame then you are missing the point. I blame Arsene Wenger by the way. But then I ALWAYS do.

  3. Radfordkennedy

    Mar 15, 2020, 22:00 #116660

    One of the questions I get asked when I'm working over in Normandy( which won't be for a bloody long time now), when I do a Q and A session at the end of the day, and I tell them as an old Navy man it was my fascination with operation Neptune that eventually got me the gig as a guide, is this..' why do you never see the Navy, blue ensign' the reason is that it will only ever be flown when this country is on a War footing. I have to tell you I went to Costco today to get or at least try to get some bottled water, my God I looked up fully expecting to see the Blue duster flying from the top of the warehouse, abject panic is setting in, as a race of people we tend to be adaptable and rugged when circumstances dictate but what I saw today was shameful, and sadly my wife who is not of these shores got a mouthful of abuse simply for being foreign, what the hell has happened to our people.


    Mar 15, 2020, 10:17 #116659

    ACG - correct & I am not saying that! But apart from being brilliant at "spin" & "schadenfreude" (eg. Italy), this venal, incompetent Government are finding out that the one public service you cannot starve of funds & get away with it is the NHS. Our "rich" nation has one of Europe's worst resourced health services & we are going to have to get the private sector to bail us out. My wife & I are old & generally very fit, live in a healthy rural environment, walk our dogs a couple of miles a day etc. but today that dope, Matt Hancock, is now telling us to stay at home for months where, with no support network, we can choose to starve to death. It's a good job there aren't enough policemen to prevent us from sneaking into town once a week to top up the old chuck wagon ffs.!!

  5. A Cornish Gooner

    Mar 14, 2020, 23:10 #116658

    CG Not sure if it's correct to blame 'austerity' for all health problems in UK caused by a pandemic.


    Mar 14, 2020, 21:04 #116657

    As a postscript to my previous grumpy remarks, the reality behind the cod science we are being fed, "herd immunity" etc. is that after years of unnecessary austerity the NHS is on it's knees & it's only chance of coping is by "flattening" the infection curve. For example, down here unless I declare an emergency situation I cannot see or even speak to a doctor for 3 weeks. So I have come off some powerful anti-inflammatory drugs because I realised that they were damaging my gut & immune system. My decision! - which fortunately my physio thought sensible. It's going to be a long time before we will be able to discuss Arsenal on here, in the meantime I hope people will at last wake up as to what has been happening to our cherished public services over the last decade. Young bucks on here may not be too bothered but I know at my advanced that I am at risk. This Government might find it's social security bills more manageable when this is all over - but a great many families will have needlessly lost old or vulnerable members.

  7. Seven Kings Gooner 1

    Mar 14, 2020, 20:24 #116656

    Being an older Gooner, when I first started working in the mid sixties I had the great pleasure of working with a couple of seventy year old part time workers who had served in the WW1. They swore that the war never started until the aristocracy had their sporting season, hence Cheltenham going ahead and football closing this week. Money and influence made sure Cheltenham was allowed to go ahead - a 100 years later nothing has changed. Pleased Mikel is on the mend.


    Mar 14, 2020, 20:06 #116655

    The football industry is going to see a few casualties along with plenty of small/medium businesses while many "expendable" people will die because of this City driven Government's unwillingness to accept responsibility & actually GOVERN. Instead Bozo prefers to shelter behind a couple of "experts" who are trying to buck the international consensus with their dubious "herd immunity" theories. Reasons to be cheerful? Any contributions gratefully accepted because I can't think of any. Still, at least Mikel is on the mend.

  9. John F

    Mar 14, 2020, 14:53 #116654

    Shu I think the Government is in an extremely difficult position and there are much more cleverer men then me that the government consults with for me to have an opinion on.Spoke too soon about my home town people have just been admitted into hospital.

  10. markymark

    Mar 14, 2020, 13:51 #116653

    Shu - he’s not blamed the governments response he said that’s why the government is so worried . Two separate points. WHO still have it at 3-4% with a view from some experts also that two separate strains are on the loose. The Italian situation is still being debated as it seems to be particularly nasty. Let’s hope the true figure is closer overall to 0.01%! Remember what we are doing in the UK may be a brilliant response but it does go against what the WHO and China did. It’s unknown territory simple as that

  11. shu

    Mar 14, 2020, 13:37 #116652

    It is at 5% because may people have had it and didn't even know . The real mortality rate maybe 1%. I like the way you also blame the governments response , that tells us a lot .

  12. markymark

    Mar 14, 2020, 13:30 #116651

    I remember ages ago popping into a Waitrose in a classic them and us London neighbourhood. An old boy was in there and he had one tin of tomato’s and I think some pilchards type thing in his basket. Afterwards it haunted me as I felt I should have gone back and bought him a big shop. It’s fellas like him who will suffer by the selfishness of others. This will bring out bad behaviour in people no doubt .

  13. John F

    Mar 14, 2020, 13:15 #116650

    The run on shops has already started.I popped in our local ASDA no.milk,pasta,toilet rolls.Cat food and tins looked low.This area Humber and East riding region has had only one case 2 weeks ago as far as I know .People are behaving selfishly now God knows what would happen if there was a death.

  14. ArsenalMagna

    Mar 14, 2020, 11:53 #116649

    Just to add to Mark's well-informed post, coronavirus is not something we do or can build immune resistance to, so it can't be compared to flu.

  15. markymark

    Mar 14, 2020, 11:50 #116648

    Moscow Gooner - yes at the moment 10 deaths but soon every ventilator in the UK will be used . The choice will then be between the old and the young when people fall ill . Already non Corona elderly are dying in Italy as resources are switched across. It’s a brutal decision. 1 death in a town virtually guarantees a run on the shops . We had rationing in the 2nd world war to stop this. 1 death in your town effectively means the suffer has had it for 3 weeks. Following math logic at time of inception 100 others had the condition. At point of death due to spread rates between 400-1000 have it. These stats are courtesy of a maths developer At the London School of Tropical Medicine. Most of these individuals should be self isolating. Soon Doctors , Train Drivers , Policeman , Fireman will Also suffer . Even poor old Banking Staff. This is not just an average flu, neither is it made up By Leftie Democrats as Trump tried to push. 98% will likely survive but I suspect a further decade of turmoil as per 2008-18. It’s actually a lot worse than the Smog and admittedly that was bad

  16. Cyril

    Mar 13, 2020, 22:57 #116647

    John F: bless you mate. I had the winner of the last race at Cheltenham- on the nod as well. Lovely little 25/1 tickle. The last nod of that horse could be the last bit of fun I see for a while. Nice little 300 pound earner. Ok , time to get bored for a few months!

  17. Don Howe

    Mar 13, 2020, 21:50 #116646

    What I love about the decision to stop the City game, is that they were quite prepared to put 60,000 people at risk, but as soon as the dear players were at risk. They called it off. In the first and second world wars, football was abandoned, at least professionally. But that was on a very low cost base. This could kill the Premier League. Let’s hope so as top flight football has become an obscenity. The way Wolves were made to travel was disgraceful. Sense has come because the administrators and owners are at personal risk. If only they could be at personal risk when they decided to play in Baku or in forty degree heat in Qatar.

  18. Don Howe

    Mar 13, 2020, 21:50 #116645

    What I love about the decision to stop the City game, is that they were quite prepared to put 60,000 people at risk, but as soon as the dear players were at risk. They called it off. In the first and second world wars, football was abandoned, at least professionally. But that was on a very low cost base. This could kill the Premier League. Let’s hope so as top flight football has become an obscenity. The way Wolves were made to travel was disgraceful. Sense has come because the administrators and owners are at personal risk. If only they could be at personal risk when they decided to play in Baku or in forty degree heat in Qatar.

  19. John F

    Mar 13, 2020, 20:14 #116644

    The reason why I think governments are so worried is the estimated 5% death rate in Italy which is above the 1% predicted.It is disaster over there with over a 1200 deaths so far in such a short period of time.

  20. Made Up Stat

    Mar 13, 2020, 18:47 #116643

    Good to see Mikel on the mend. Think we all need to see things like this on tv now. Get the message across that being positive for covid 19 isn't an automatic death sentence - for the majority it's an inconvenience. Then we can all get loo rolls and dolmio again.

  21. Moscow Gooner

    Mar 13, 2020, 16:16 #116642

    Has the world gone completely mad? 10 deaths and we close down football! I wonder how many people have died of 'flu or the common cold in London this Winter? When we talk about 'a woeful and inadequate response', it seems to be pretty much spot on - it only looks woeful and inadequate when you put it up against the hysteria gripping a dozen or so other countries right now. 12,000 deaths in London from the smog and one game called off - now that's about right.

  22. John F

    Mar 13, 2020, 7:09 #116641

    If the virus was spread by a handshake with the Greek owner then how mad was it to play the Wolves game.Sorry about the Gallows humour Cyril I have a few of my Gardening customers who are in the same boat and are worried sick.

  23. Cyril

    Mar 13, 2020, 1:34 #116640

    John F: I get the gallows humour but I’m yet to hear any jokes of this matter. I don’t mind saying this online but I am high risk as I had a heart attack six months ago. It’s likely I may come into contact as I travel miles for work and I am everywhere. Keep healthy everyone and in a positive note, I will enjoy Cheltenham tomorrow.

  24. John F

    Mar 12, 2020, 23:25 #116639

    The rest of the season may have to be played out on Fifa 20.

  25. markymark

    Mar 12, 2020, 22:41 #116638

    Mikel Arteta has Corona Virus thats season end now really isn’t it for football Rest up well Mikel!


    Mar 12, 2020, 19:20 #116637

    Blimey, "workers playtime", Big Hearted Arthur Askey, jumpers for goalposts anyone? Good old UK seeking soft financial landing as per usual instead of facing up to the harsh realities. I have already lost £0000's with pension funds, shares etc. so having a bit of footie, rugby, F1, Euros, Olympics etc. to watch instead is bugger all compensation. Cancel the lot I say! But I am an old grumpy person, glass half empty person &, in fairness, having a middle-aged but juvenile at heart, virile Bozo Johnson in charge as PM what more can possibly go wrong?

  27. Paulward

    Mar 12, 2020, 12:08 #116636

    Agree with everyone on here, it’s difficult to envisage anything but a complete ban on sporting events within a week or so. I don’t really see how this season gets completed unless Euro 2020 is postponed till next year.

  28. Made Up Stat

    Mar 12, 2020, 11:43 #116635

    Is it just me that's confused about players not shaking hands pre kick-off while they still incessantly gob on the pitch, then roll around on it and hug and kiss after a goal?

  29. ArsenalMagna

    Mar 12, 2020, 11:30 #116634

    Some interesting ideas you express, Robert, but I think it's only a matter of time before the whole season is called off. Coronavirus spreads like wildfire and we're already seeing squads in self-isolation, so playing behind closed doors won't change that (City vs Real looking to be off already!). Also bear in mind that at this stage of the season games are hardest to pack in, so rescheduling isn't that viable in a lot of cases. It only takes a couple of weeks of games being off for everything to have to be reformatted, as Serie A are looking at right now. I think most people, especially in this country, are just in denial about the scale of this problem, but expect a similar quarantine policy imposed on Britons, as has happened with Italy, within the next few weeks.

  30. John F

    Mar 12, 2020, 9:35 #116633

    I cannot see it continuing because it is only a matter of time before players start getting the virus and forcing the self isolation of entire squads.